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‘The Future of Spacetime’

May 14, 2002 — Albert Einstein overturned commonsense notions of our universe in 1905 when he published his Special Theory of Relativity, which proposed that space and time are not absolute. The theory means that for an observer traveling near the speed of light, time moves more slowly and distances appear to contract. In his 1916 General Theory of Relativity, Einstein went further, proposing that gravity warps or curves space and time.

Nearly a century later, the public has grown more accustomed to the idea that we live in three dimensions of space and a fourth dimension of time. Scientists have verified some of relativity’s more bizarre implications: A twin on a high-speed spaceship ages more slowly than an identical twin on Earth, and space harbors black holes so dense that not even light can escape their gravitational pull.

As the concept of spacetime nears its second century, University of Utah physicist Richard Price has written a new book – “The Future of Spacetime” – with physicists Stephen W. Hawking, Kip S. Thorne and Igor Novikov and writers Timothy Ferris and Alan Lightman. W.W. Norton & Co. published the book May 13 ($25.95 hardcover).

Spacetime “encompasses all locations and all times,” Price says. “Prior to Einstein, connecting them seemed to be pointless because time and space were physically distinct. Einstein showed in fact that the two are mixed, much as ‘forward’ and ‘right’ are.”

He says the physics of spacetime underlies some of the broadest, unsettled questions in science, including “what is time, does the universe have an edge, what is the ultimate fate of everything?”

“Up until the early 1960s, the heavens seemed pretty simple,” says Price. “Only details needed to be worked out. Then there came quasars, pulsars, gamma ray bursts. It almost seems as if as time goes by, we know less and less about the universe. … Now, around the turn of the millennium, it is appropriate to contemplate what lies ahead in a world in which cutting-edge science opens more questions than it closes.”

The book stems from a June 3, 2000, celebration of the 60th birthday of Thorne, a Logan, Utah, native who works as a physicist at the California Institute of Technology. The chapters in “The Future of Spacetime” are adapted from popular talks delivered at that celebration.

“Because the level of complexity varies from chapter to chapter, the book will appeal to a wide variety of readers,” Price says. “This is nothing like a textbook. This may seem highfalutin stuff, but it wouldn’t be out of place as beach reading.”

Price wrote the book’s 43-page introduction, which is longer than all but one of the chapters. In it, he provides what he calls “a minimalist sketch of just what it is that physicists do when they say they are working on spacetime.”

“Relativity, or spacetime physics, with its aura of black holes and an expanding universe, grabs our attention because it is the stuff of daily life – space and time – made exotic, as if the librarian has driven by in a Ferrari wearing a sarong,” Price writes in his introduction. “An interest, perhaps an obsession, with the nature of space and time is as old as human thought.”

Hawking and Novikov “write about time travel and why it is logically possible, but probably physically impossible, although at least one kind of time travel is possible. We all travel forward in time,” says Price. “Kip Thorne is on a scouting mission ahead of the rest of us, speculating about what lies ahead in the physical sciences in the next few decades. Alan Lightman and Tim Ferris write about the relationship of this kind of science to the public and to the lives of those who do it.”

Price’s research involves exotic astrophysics, which he defines as “what we believe is out there that depends crucially on Einstein’s curved spacetime theory of gravity.” In particular, he studies the relationship between black holes and gravitational waves, which are oscillations or “ripples” in spacetime predicted by relativity and generated by violent astrophysical events. Within a few years, new observatories in Washington state, Louisiana, Italy, Germany and elsewhere are expected to detect spacetime ripples, perhaps ripples that originated at black holes.